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georgia - A russian view

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Don't Trust Politicians With War


26 August 2008By Alexander Golts


Until recently, I thought the famous quip by early 20th-century French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau that "war is too important to be left to the generals" had a lot of validity. Now the South Ossetian war has shown that even when there is an unquestionable military victory, diplomats and politicians can turn it into a crushing defeat.  I must admit that for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's army fought well despite the fact that its main weaponry dates back to the early 1980s. What's more, the army fought with an extremely outdated communications system and without the use of drones, night-vision equipment or precision-guided weapons.


The conflict also demonstrated that the military top brass runs the armed forces the same way they did in the 1970s. Its archaic structure prevents the military from conducting joint operations between all the branches of the armed forces under a unified command structure. The result is that land- and air-based forces operate completely independent of each other. It is anyone's guess why Tu-22 strategic bombers were used for reconnaissance purposes or for the strafing of tactical ground targets. It is also unclear why the Air Force was unable to foil Georgian anti-aircraft systems using electronic countermeasures; as a result, Georgia was able to shoot down a few Russian aircraft. Moreover, military intelligence dropped the ball when it failed to provide timely reports of Georgian troop deployment.


But at the end of the day, none of these drawbacks stopped Russian forces from gaining an early decisive victory. And contrary to what is widely believed, the Russian forces did not have an overwhelming numerical superiority over the Georgian forces. Rather, Moscow sent a few units of well-trained and battle-ready volunteers, and they played a decisive role in the victory since they were deployed into the battle area without any reorganization or additional mobilization.  Russia began its deployment only 12 hours after Georgia initiated its first attacks on South Ossetia. That was a good response time, especially if you compare it to the military's poor performance in the first and second wars in Chechnya. In the second war, federal forces finally pulled themselves together and began fighting only 10 days after insurgent leader Shamil Basayev's army invaded Dagestan.


For the first time, the army conducted its operations using the Powell Doctrine, named after Colin Powell, then-U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (although the main points were originally formulated in the early 1980s by former U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger). According to this doctrine, heavy and decisive force should be used right away to provide maximum superiority over the enemy in the shortest time. In addition, it would be difficult for truly objective military analysts to fault Russian forces for destroying Georgia's most important military targets deep inside its territory. These were necessary steps to disrupt Georgia's supply lines and to prevent regrouping of enemy forces.


But a successful military campaign ended up being a political catastrophe for Russia, which now finds itself completely isolated by the international community. The level of isolation is not unlike when the Soviet Union was ostracized in 1983 after its fighter jets shot down a South Korean airplane full of passengers. In answer to the condemnation that Russian has received from all sides, propagandists on state television ask: "Has Russian done anything wrong? Didn't NATO send troops into Yugoslavia without a mandate from the international community? And didn't the United States do the same thing in Iraq?"


The West has never been this united against Moscow's aggressive, neo-imperial foreign policy. But this has been building up for years, based largely on the inflammatory rhetoric of Russia's top leaders. Remember, for example, how then-President Vladimir Putin's repeatedly threatened the West with "asymmetric" responses -- for example, aiming the country's missiles at Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine in response to NATO expansion and the planned deployment of elements of a U.S. missile-defense system in Europe. In addition, there were those ridiculous media leaks about refueling Russian strategic bombers in Cuba and the threat from a top military leader to deploy Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region. And don't forget Putin's incendiary speech in Munich in 2007.


It is particularly noteworthy that only Cuba, Syria, Belarus (albeit with some hesitation at first) and a few other countries have supported Russia's military response in Georgia. Neither China nor India supported the Kremlin, even though Moscow defended their interests at the most recent Group of Eight summit in Japan. And it is clear why they remain silent. They have "problem territories" of their own and intend to retain the right to act as they choose in them without fear of foreign interference.


To put it bluntly, the Georgian campaign was a complete and total failure of Russian diplomacy. Moscow's current isolation is the inevitable result of having developed over the last few years its hard-nosed, provocative stance against the West.  Clemenceau may be turning in his grave now because the Georgian campaign showed that you can trust the generals with war after all. It is the politicians you can't trust.


Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.


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